Welcome to the food chain

  • Image credit: Simen Johan
  • The alligator that bit off an 11-year-old"â„¢s arm in a Louisiana pond had lived there for years without incident.
  • Bears are unpredictable and highly dangerous, and you really don"â„¢t want to go anywhere near their cubs.
  • Wile E Coyote Image credit: Geoff Kuchera/iStockphoto
  • In 2008, Anne Hjelle returned to the trail where she was attacked by a mountain lion four years before. The 55 kg cougar bit Hjelle 40 times; 200 stitches and six surgeries were required to repair the damage to her face.
Date:31 July 2009 Tags:, , , , , , ,

The good news: some of America’s once-endangered predators are making a comeback. The bad news: their favourite habitat might be someone’s back yard.

It was the perfect ending to a perfect afternoon. Gary Mann and his girlfriend, Helen, were watching the sun go down after a satisfying day clearing brush in the backyard of Mann’s home in Sutter Creek, California. A pile of branches and twigs was burning merrily, throwing shadows into the growing darkness as the couple’s three dogs – a 22 kg Shar-Pei named Tigger and a pair of Rottweiler mixes, Takota and Tenaya – played at their feet.

Mann’s home is the kind of place nature lovers dream about. The house is set back from the road on a densely wooded, 4 ha parcel bordered by government land and private property; wild turkeys and deer – up to a dozen at a time – wander through daily. Beyond the back yard lawn, 24 m from the house, ponderosa and oak grow thickly on the steep slopes of a hill.

That February night, Helen heard crackling and snapping of underbrush and saw something large moving along the edge of the trees. When Tigger went to investigate, with Takota close behind, Mann didn’t stop them, even though he knew mountain lions roamed the area. One had peered through his neighbour’s window, scaring the woman inside, and another neighbour had recently seen a big male lion in Mann’s driveway.

“The lions come in pretty far,” Mann says. “Common sense would have said, don’t let the dogs go. But I’ve been living up here for eight years, and it’s rare that they attack dogs.”

Suddenly, the couple heard Tigger “screaming for her life”, Mann says. When he ran down to the edge of the woods, he could see only shadows and fleeting movement in the thick underbrush. Whatever was attacking the Shar-Pei growled at him. Takota rushed in, and then it was over – the animal released Tigger and took off. “We think Takota scared it,” Mann says. “It all happened in about 10 seconds.”

Tigger’s injuries were serious. The skin over her head had been split open to the bone, her left eye almost torn out. Deep claw marks ran down her back. Mann held the wounds closed as he and Helen rushed Tigger to the vet, who confirmed that the injuries had been caused by a mountain lion.

Mann has kept the dogs out of the woods. “I’m still here and the lion is still here,” he says. “My neighbours said it was up at their property two nights ago. To attack a dog near a house when two adults are out in the yard with a fire going – that’s when you have to start worrying. There are lots of kids just a couple of blocks from here.”

When Europeans settled the New World, they dealt with predators by showing them the business end of a gun. Wherever pioneers settled, populations of large predators – mountain lions, bears, wolves, alligators – plummeted or disappeared entirely. That search-and-destroy mission continued virtually unabated until the rise of the environmental movement in the 1960s and 70s, when the national attitude began to evolve. People came to believe that what was left of wilderness and its inhabitants should be preserved for future generations.

This ideology has clearly worked: since the passage of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, 14 species of animals that were on the brink of extinction have recovered. Alligators were removed from the list in 1987; grey wolves in 2009. The grizzly bear, confi ned mostly to Yellowstone National Park in the lower 48 states, was de-listed in 2007.

As for once heavily-hunted mountain lions, some 50 000 of the big cats now inhabit North America, with populations in the United States as far east as North Dakota. Experts predict that lions will eventually re-inhabit the Adirondacks in New York, the Maine woods and the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.

Few people anticipated that rebounding populations would create a new problem: an increase in animal attacks as predators returned to former ranges now occupied by humans. In August 2002, a black bear killed a 5-month-old girl in the Catskills, 160 km northwest of New York City; the baby had been sleeping in a carriage on the porch. In January 2004, a mountain lion killed a male bicyclist in Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park in Orange County, California, then attacked a 31-year-old woman a few hours later. Other cyclists managed to save the victim, but not before she sustained serious injuries.

In October 2007, an alligator snatched and killed an 83-year-old woman outside her daughter’s home in Savannah, Georgia. The next day, her body was found in a pond, her hands and a foot missing. In May 2008, a coyote bit a two-year-old girl playing in a Chino Hills, California, park and attempted to drag her off .

Although the trend is worrying, the absolute number of attacks remains small. Fatal black bear attacks on humans have doubled since the late 1970s, increasing from one to just two incidents per year. (About six people are injured each year.) Between 1890 and 2008, there were 110 mountain lion attacks in North America; half of the 20 fatalities resulting from these attacks occurred in the past two decades. Despite an alligator population too large to count, the US had just 391 attacks and 18 fatalities between 1948 and 2005. Coyotes have caused only one known fatality in the US.

Still, the relationship between animals and humans is proving to be more complex than simply kill ’em all or love ’em all – even though some of the old, romantic ideas about living at one with nature linger. “If you ask people why they moved where they did, you discover that they moved to be immersed in nature and wildlife,” says Marc Bekoff , professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado- Boulder. “Th e fastest way to decrease the experience is to start killing the animals.”

Whether homeowners welcome large animals into their neighbourhoods or see them as life-threatening intruders, most people recognise that we’ve entered a new era: predators and humans today often share the same terrain, and their daily routines intersect in ways that challenge conventional ideas about humans and nature.

The carefully manicured lawns of suburban and exurban developments may look domesticated, but they often occupy what were recently wildlands. These transitional zones between habitats, known as ecotones, are expanding at an unprecedented rate – providing more opportunities for humanpredator interaction. Urban land area in the US has quadrupled from 6 million hectares in 1945 to 24 million hectares in 2002; rural residential land has increased by an average of 485 000 ha per year since 1980.

But the spread of human populations doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of predators. The semi-wild environments desired by humans are often equally attractive to apex animals, and in many regions, human and predator populations are growing hand-in-hand. Nowhere is this more evident than in America’s gator belt, which extends from North Carolina down through Florida and west to Louisiana and Texas.

There, people have moved into the wetlands where alligators live, and they’ve created ponds and canals within subdivisions that alligators consider appealing habitats.

In July 2008, 11-year-old Devin Funck and two friends escaped the stifl ing Louisiana heat by taking a dip in Crystal Lake, a flooded former gravel pit in a subdivision near Slidell. Funck was playing in the shallows when an alligator grabbed his arm, dragged him to deeper water and pulled him under. After a struggle, Funck poked the gator in the eye and pulled free, but his left arm was gone, torn off at the shoulder. Friends ran for help, and within an hour emergency responders were rushing the boy to hospital.

According to local news reports, area residents knew the gator lived in the popular swimming hole; in fact, they had even given the 3,25 m, 220 kg reptile a name – Big Joe. It took nearly three hours for hunters to find and kill Big Joe and cut Funck’s bluish but intact arm from its stomach. Doctors were unable to reattach the limb, however, and Devin now wears a prosthesis.

Experts can off er no explanation as to why the gator, which had patrolled Crystal Lake for years without incident, attacked Funck. And neither can residents: two boys who often swam in the lake said that the alligators there usually swim away when approached. “Th e set of circumstances that takes a human-alligator interaction to the next step, to an attack – we don’t know what that trigger is,” says University of Florida professor and gator expert Frank Mazzotti.

As animals and people encounter each other more frequently, creatures can lose their sense of fear. It’s called habituation – a process by which an animal, after a period of exposure to a stimulus, stops responding. “Through experience, animals learn that people or developments are not threats, so their natural fear decreases,” says Tania Lewis, a US Geological Survey biologist at Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska.

When animals are no longer afraid of humans, they no longer try to avoid them – and the results can be deadly. In January 1991, 18-year-old Scott Lancaster was killed – and partially eaten – by a mountain lion as he jogged 400 m from his Idaho Springs, Colorado, high school. This case and other human-lion interactions in and around Boulder, Colorado, were the basis of the book The Beast in the Garden, in which author David Baron argues that mountain lions have become habituated.

“As wildlife invades suburbs,” Baron wrote, “and as suburbs invade wildlife habitat, we are changing animal behaviour in unexpected and sometimes troubling ways. Rarely has the behavioural shift been so well documented, as in the case of Boulder’s lions.” The lions, he argues, weren’t afraid of people; in fact, the cats had changed their diets to include pets and sometimes people – and were teaching their offspring to do the same.

University of Northern Arizona professor Paul Beier scoffs at the idea of specieswide mountain lion habituation – as well as the notion that people are now lion prey. “It’s just not true,” he says. “If people were on the menu, we’d have an attack every day.” Though habituation can occur in individual animals, “the idea that it’s happening broadly as a phenomenon is not consistent with the number of attacks we see, which is still less than one fatality a year. Every mountain lion has had an opportunity to kill a human, so 99,9 per cent of mountain lions don’t bother to chomp us.”

Beier, who keeps records of mountain lion attacks and has tagged and tracked 32 lions, says all predators experiment with different types of prey. “They have prey that they specialise in eating, but occasionally they’ll eat something else – that’s how they learn,” he says. “If you think about it, that’s necessary for animals to evolve. Maybe they’re trying something new that’s about the size of a deer but has two legs. But, by and large, they don’t.”

Even if humans don’t turn into prey for all predators, the USGS’s Lewis – whose husband was Scott Lancaster’s classmate – believes habituation does happen, and not just for mountain lions, but for bears, coyotes, alligators and most other animals that regularly come into contact with humans. “Wildlife will habituate,” she says. “We have an effect on each other – whenever people and animals encounter each other, animals learn from that, and that helps shape their behaviour the next time they have an encounter.”

When summer rolls around, backyards turn into a smorgasbord for wildlife. Uncleaned grills, bird feeders, dog food left on the porch and garbage stuffed into unsecured bins can lure creatures to doorsteps. And once an animal has an easily obtained meal, it keeps coming back. The process through which animals learn that people are a source of high-quality calories is called food conditioning.

“Sometimes wild animals get accustomed to a certain source of food, and they forego other sources,” Bekoff says. “Why hunt for a rabbit when you can get a freebie handout at Joe’s?”

This was just the kind of situation Denise Haldeman walked right into in May 2008. She went outside after dark to take down the bird feeders in the back yard of her Barbours, Pennsylvania, home. Her dog, Panda, tore into the darkness, but Haldeman thought the 12-yearold Labrador mix was chasing another dog that sometimes ran loose in the neighbourhood.

Then she saw the black bear. It was standing on its hind legs, just a few metres away, clicking its teeth. As Haldeman turned to flee, the bear struck her from behind, knocking her face down on the patio. “The bear was standing on me, biting my head,” Haldeman later told reporters.

The bear left without attacking her further. Haldeman was treated for wounds on her head, face, arms and legs. Panda was not so lucky; the dog, which had also encountered the bear, died from its injuries. Authorities later determined that Haldeman had unwittingly come between a sow and her cubs; 10 days later the bears, which had previously been seen around the neighbourhood, were trapped in Haldeman’s yard and relocated about 240 km away.

Black bears, usually considered far more docile than grizzlies, will typically flee when confronted by a human, says Stephen Herrero, author of Bear attacks: their causes and avoidance. He has been studying bear attacks for 42 years. Foodconditioned black bears can become aggressive – a learned behaviour from the wild, where they must defend their food from other bears.

Most attacks are defensive – when people are in a bear’s space, it feels uncomfortable and may attack the perceived threat. But some attacks are predatory. “Th ere’s the odd black bear – and this is where the fatalities come from – that just decides, Well I’ve been eating deer all my life, I think I’ll try out that two-legged thing”, Herrero says. “That pattern of behaviour is very recognisable. The bear walks around, sizes things up, and when it decides to go for it, it goes for it.”

But most predatory attacks take place in the wilderness. Herrero says that backyard predatory behaviour is peculiar, and biologists haven’t yet figured out why it’s happening.

Although bears are the poster children for food conditioning, they are by no means the only susceptible animals. “Coyotes that have become problems have been fed,” Bekoff says. “It’s hard to think of any exceptions.” In August 1981, a 3-year-old girl from Glendale, California, was waiting in the driveway for her father to fi nd his car keys when a coyote grabbed her by the throat. Before the father could chase the animal away, it dragged the toddler through the street; she later died of a broken neck and blood loss.

Bekoff , who worked the case, says the neighbours had been feeding the coyote, perhaps in the hope that regular meals would prevent the wild animal from attacking pets. Wolves, raccoons and even alligators can also become food-conditioned.

Humanity isn’t likely to stop expanding into wildlife habitat. Although the risk of a fatal animal attack – or any animal attack – is less than the chance of getting struck by lightning (that is, 1 in 400 000), every time someone steps into the water in Florida, or jogs alone in mountain lion territory, they are at risk. So how can people successfully live in this deceptively tame-looking new wilderness?

Most biologists argue that the simplest solution – eradicating predators – would be counterproductive. “If you kill animals, other animals come in,” Bekoff says, pointing out that wolves once kept coyote populations in check, and without that natural predator, coyote populations have exploded. Besides, Bekoff says, “people are against the wanton killing of these animals.”

The key, then, might be to adapt ourselves. “We live with wildlife, and when we choose to build our house in the middle of the forest, we’ve now put our house in their back yard,” says Charles Schwartz, a research wildlife biologist at Montana State University.

Predators once roamed the land unchallenged, yet if we’re smart – giving animals the respect they deserve and reconsidering how we dispose of rubbish, what foliage we plant – we can live together.

“They’re wild animals and they’re predators,” Mazzotti says. “Treating them with that small amount of respect and intelligence is the best thing we can do to live with them.”

Escape the beast
Animal attacks are rare, but they do happen. If you ever find yourself in a part of the US where big predators lurk, here’s some useful survival advice.

Mountain lion
Predator profile:
Stalk-and-ambush carnivores that usually eat fast, hoofed animals such as deer. (Also known as: cougar, puma, catamount, panther.)

Cougars incapacitate prey by biting down on the back of the neck, snapping the spine or severing an artery.

Survival strategies:
Never hike or bike trails alone. If you see a mountain lion, don’t run – that triggers its pounce reflex. Instead, make yourself look bigger, shout at the lion and back away slowly. Grab something to defend yourself with, but only if it doesn’t require you to get down on all fours, which makes you look vulnerable. If attacked, fight back. Try to gouge a cat’s eyes or suffocate it – its windpipe is superficial and can be compressed.

Predator profile:

Opportunistic hunters that eat what is readily available and easily overpowered.

In a defensive attack, a gator bites an intruder and lets it go as a warning. In a predatory attack, alligators grab prey and pull it underwater, then engage in what’s known as a death roll – spinning the prey over and over until it is incapacitated.

Survival strategies:
Kick and hit the alligator; go for eyes and other sensitive areas. Gators are not well equipped to capture prey on land but still move quickly. Urban myth says to run in a zigzag to escape, but there’s no proof that’s effective; just run away as fast as you can.

Black bear
Predator profile:

Typically shy omnivores that need high-quality food to create fat for hibernation.

In a defensive attack, a bear makes short charges, clicks its teeth and growls. In a predatory attack, a bear pursues you persistently and quietly.

Survival strategies:
Defensive attack:

Wait till the bear stops moving, then back away slowly. Repeat this strategy until you’re out of its sight.
Make yourself look as big as possible by standing taller and opening up your coat. Throw things at the bear and make noise. Don’t run; this can trigger an attack. In the wild, always carry bear spray, and don’t hike alone

Wile E. Coyote?
It may look like a cute, friendly dog with biggish ears, but the coyote (Canis latrans) is a predator through and through, and will readily tackle domestic animals and small humans (occasionally, larger ones).

  • In 2007, offficials posted warnings in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park after a pair of coyotes charged two leashed dogs on a path. A woman was walking her two large dogs along a path when two coyotes launched their attack. They bit one of her dogs, leaving it with minor injuries, and lunged at the other, according to animal control officials.
  • At Lake Arrowhead, California, a coyote grabbed a two-year-old girl by the head and tried to drag her from the front yard of her mountain home in the third such incident in five days, authorities said. The coyote attacked the girl when her mother, Melissa Rowley, went inside for a moment to put away a camera. When she came out of the house, she saw the coyote dragging her daughter toward a street (the animal released the child when her mother ran towards it).
  • Also in California, a nanny pulled a two-year-old girl from the jaws of a coyote after the animal tried to carry her away in its mouth, officials said. The coyote then ran off into nearby brush. The child suffered wounds to her buttocks and was later given a rabies vaccine.
  • In Northborough, Massachusetts, a 76-year-old grandfather, Arthur Cole, was walking on a nature trail with his grandson Nicholas, 4, when a 20 kg female coyote attacked them from behind. Nicholas ran for help while his grandfather wrestled the coyote to the ground. "I had hold of her tail with my left hand, and I think I had my right arm under her head," Cole recalled. His right hand and left ankle were bitten.

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